It took me several weeks to put it together. I interviewed bloggers, the human-rights groups that defend them, and others with ideas about how to grow the Internet in the Arab world. I learned that the bloggers wanted to know how to build a story out of facts, and make sure they are as accurate as possible. I skipped the objectivity issue, knowing that today’s reporters here and elsewhere want their own voice. But I urged them to be fair and professional and open to ideas that contradict and challenge their own. They were especially interested in knowing the basics of sedition and other laws that can snare them. Because so many bloggers work in solitude, they wanted advice on how to create a community for support and protection. They also wanted help thinking through the pros and cons of blogging anonymously. And with all the problems they are likely to face, I reminded them that when we speak up, there is no longer silence, and we are not alone.
With Eid’s help, the guide was copied on discs that we gave to those who don’t dare work in an Internet café for fear of being arrested or otherwise hassled by government authorities. He also printed copies for workshops run by his organization and posted the guide on the network’s Web site, immediately reaching over 140 Arab human-rights groups.
The first day it went up, I received e-mails from across the Arab world, congratulating me and asking for further advice. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, which links human-rights groups across the globe, asked to post the guide on its Web site. Other human-rights and journalism groups followed. My host, The International Center for Journalists, put it online in Farsi, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as in English and Arabic. Not bad.
Since returning to Chicago last July, I’ve remained impressed by the hunger I witnessed in these young Egyptian bloggers and reporters to learn the hard work of journalism. They, and their counterparts around the Arab world, are not perfect. Their passions and sense of injustice may be so strong that they cannot stop themselves from sometimes crossing the line from witness to advocate. But their fervent belief in truth-telling and fact-based reporting is encouraging, and it propels them, sometimes like moths to a flame. As I follow developments in Egypt, I am heartened—but more than a little worried—by the work my friends and colleagues there are producing.
Wael’s Internet fame (and infamy) grew, for instance, after he posted videos of people being tortured by police. One, showing a bus driver being sodomized by officers, led to a three-year prison term for the officers. Yet, while other bloggers have been beaten or jailed, Wael thus far has faced only nasty rumors meant to discredit him.
Elsewhere, the bloggers and other independent media outlets have covered the on-again, off-again wave of labor strikes that have wracked Egypt since 2006 with a fearlessness and tenacity that put the establishment media’s thin and cautious coverage to shame. The unrest, which is now the longest and largest social upheaval in Egypt since World War II, and has pulled in everyone from factory workers to government employees, is driven by widespread layoffs, shrinking wages, and rising inflation—especially in the cost of food—at a time when wealthy Egyptians seem to be flourishing. The government crackdown on the weak political opposition and labor-union activists only fueled the strikes. Police reportedly seized a number of bloggers in April during demonstrations, and the government newspapers have been drumming up anger toward the bloggers, blaming the unrest on them.
From its first issue in July 2007, El Badeel’s investigations into the labor unrest have established it as a serious player in the Egyptian media market. It broke the story of how police had chained injured citizens arrested at a riot to their hospital beds. One day, its first three pages were given over to pictures of ordinary Egyptians caught up in the disputes, a visual landmark for Egyptian newspapers.
In May, a reporter in Cairo e-mailed me, asking for guidance on how to cover the strikes. And, after a short intermission, Sandmonkey is blogging again.